Monday, July 27, 2015

"Not My Father's Son," by Alan Cumming

I happened to have a few minutes to browse in the Diesel Bookstore in Marin County, and on a whim, I picked up actor Alan Cumming’s memoir, “Not My Father’s Son” (HarperCollins, 2014). In chapters alternating between his past and present, Cumming tells of his difficult childhood with a cruel, abusive father, and of his recent stint preparing for and participating in the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” The show involves extensive investigation of a famous person’s geneology and history, and often comes up with facts that surprise the person as well as TV viewers. So this memoir is partly structured around two mysteries involving Cumming’s father and his maternal grandfather. This structure works well to keep readers’ interest, and Cumming’s writing is personal and revealing; besides writing about the main topics, he includes some discussion of his relationship with his husband, his education, his work, and other topics. He also writes beautifully about the Scottish settings where he grew up (another aspect of interest for me, with my own Scottish ancestry and my trip there two months ago). But the abuse and the mysterious family history are mostly front and center, and we readers feel sympathy, anxiety, and suspense all at once. I don’t often read show business celebrity memoirs, but this one is compelling and well written, and focuses much less on the theater/movie business than on the personal side of this famed and excellent actor’s life. Readers cannot help but feel pain and sympathy for Cumming’s terrible childhood, but also admiration and gladness for his surviving and thriving despite that childhood. This book also includes a generous selection of photos. Oh, and by the way, the book was blurbed by Andrew O’Hagan (also from Scotland), about whose work I posted here on 7/17/15; I enjoy finding these interconnections among the books I read.

Friday, July 24, 2015

On Re-reading "The Group," by Mary McCarthy

I just took a trip down memory lane, as I re-read (after more than perhaps 45 years) “The Group” (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1954), by Mary McCarthy. An offhand mention in another book I was reading sent me back to this novel that so reflected its time. It follows the eight members of “the group,” classmates and friends at Vassar College, class of 1933, in the years after they graduate. These privileged (although not all wealthy, especially during the Depression, when some families have lost much of their money) young women embark on life with great hopes. Some of them have some vague career aspirations, while others only want to do volunteer or some other undemanding work until they get married and have children. It is a time when educated young women have some career opportunities, but these are still quite limited by tradition and prejudices. Meanwhile, women who are not married by about age 26 are considered over the hill and unlikely to ever marry. Although the women live in different places, largely but not only grouped around New York and Boston, they keep in touch, and sometimes fly or take a train to help another member of the group as needed. They are very supportive of each other, although some are closer to each other than others, and there are certainly some tensions among them. Their lives interweave; we also get to know their boyfriends, husbands, parents, and other friends. When “The Group” was first published, readers and reviewers were fascinated by the depiction of these privileged young women in the exclusive circles of the Seven Sisters colleges and the blueblood families most of the women came from. However, the main topic of discussion was not their wealth or careers, but the book’s frank depiction of their sex lives in a time when at least educated women were starting to feel justified in having sex lives. These young women were ambivalent about having sex outside of marriage, and were both proud of themselves and secretive, worrying about what others would think. There are a few (but fewer than I remembered…the novel seemed far more risqué when it was published than it does now!) fairly explicit sex scenes. There is also a detailed scene of one of the characters, after her first sexual experience, going to a doctor and clinic to obtain birth control, a source of very mixed feelings for her; doing so makes her feel modern and free and in control of her own life, on the one hand, and rather ashamed on the other hand. McCarthy, in other words, captures the lives and milieus of a certain class of women in the United States at a certain time in history. Some of these concerns and ambiguities, both regarding careers and regarding sexuality, were still issues for women well into the seventies, and some continue at some level even now. So on the one hand “The Group” is very specific to its time; on the other hand its messages (not that it feels like a “message” type book) are still relevant regarding women's lives. I have to add that the novel is enjoyable to read, or as in my case, re-read. Because of McCarthy’s often satiric tone, the novel holds up well, despite a slight feeling of datedness. Think of it as a pointed, astute, observant social document that is also fun to read.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"The Sunken Cathedral," by Kate Walbert

Reasons Why I Should like Kate Walbert’s new novel, “The Sunken Cathedral” (Scribner, 2015): 1. I have very much liked her earlier novels, “A Short History of Women” (about which I posted on 6/13/12) and “The Gardens of Kyoto” (my post was on 7/13/13) and her short story collections, which I posted about on 7/24/13 and 7/26/13). 2. It is getting excellent reviews. On the other hand: Reasons Why I Didn’t Particularly Like or Enjoy It: 1. As in Walbert’s other fiction, there is much slipping back and forth in time, which is fine, but here the slipping becomes so constant and sometimes confusing that I found it an irritant. 2. There is no main focus. Having a plethora of characters and plots and wisps of memories is all fine, but I -- rightly or wrongly -- require some kind of focus in my fiction. At times it seems a scrambled mess. 3. The device of including many long -- sometimes more than a page each --footnotes telling back stories, adding facts, etc. is all very experimental and catchy, but distracting and, for me, not effective. 4. The novel is set mainly in Manhattan (something I always enjoy; this is not the problem here) against a background, or rather a pervading presence, both there and nationally and internationally, of a vaguely apocalyptic threat of climate change, rising waters, unusual weather, but this again is rather indistinct and not specific. For all these reasons, I could never settle into the book; I felt tugged around and back and forth. I did have the chance to get somewhat involved in the lives of some of the main characters (two elderly friends, Marie and Simone; their elderly art teacher, Sid; Marie’s tenant, Elizabeth), but even then, the outlines of their lives were unclear in so many ways. I like to think that I am at least somewhat open to experimentation in fiction, but perhaps I am just too old-fashioned in my desire for a somewhat clear plot and well-drawn characters. Going back and forth in time is also fine, but with a few more signposts than are offered here. I realize I am sounding like a grouchy traditionalist, and there may be some truth in that description! None of this negates my admiration for and appreciation of this gifted author, Kate Walbert, and her fine fiction. I am just a bit less taken with this novel, “The Sunken Cathedral,” than with her other fiction.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"The Illuminations," by Andrew O'Hagan

Why have I never heard of the author Andrew O’Hagan before? Not only is he a well known (although, as I said, not by me…), prize-winning author of four novels and two nonfiction books in the UK, but he is also an editor of the London Review, which I have sporadically subscribed to and read over the years. I just read his most recent novel, “The Illuminations” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), which was a revelation. The novel’s very original premise and structure is based on the close relationship between Anne Quirk, formerly a gifted and somewhat well known photographer, and her grandson Luke, who is an officer in the British army based in Afghanistan. Anne is failing mentally, and lives in a sort of retirement home. There are various intimations about her past life that we don’t exactly figure out the significance of until fairly late in the novel. Suffice it to say that she had one great love, Henry, had a daughter Alice by him, and Alice, although she felt neglected by Anne, is her dutiful daughter and Luke’s loving mother. Luke feels that his grandmother Anne is the one who taught him about life, art, seeing things clearly, and being perceptive about life. He is very loyal to her, and their relationship is important to both of them, and touching to observe. Towards the end of the novel, Luke honors Anne’s desire to go back to Blackpool, where most of her relationship with Henry had taken place and where she has not been for many years; he takes her there and finds her old friends there. Most of the novel goes back and forth between Anne’s current life – and allusions to her past life – on the one hand, and Luke’s sometimes horrific and traumatic experiences in Afghanistan, on the other. Their two stories come together at the end of the novel during the trip to Blackpool. These two stories seem and are very different, but the indirect connection (besides these two characters’ close relationship) is that both characters have been adventurous and unafraid, yet have suffered. I sometimes had trouble reading the Afghanistan chapters, but that was my failing, not the author’s. In any case, this is an unusual novel, well written, and challenging in the sense of making the reader think about what is important in life (but not in a didactic way). I am very pleased to have “discovered” this new – to me – author, and will look for more of his novels.

Monday, July 13, 2015

"A Spool of Blue Thread," by Anne Tyler

Do you ever want to tell your reading friends “Just read this book! Trust me! You will be glad you did!”? I sometimes feel that way. But I know that I need to provide a little more information and support to those statements; after all, some friends have different tastes in books, or (understandably!) want more information before committing to a book. Certainly, readers of this book blog would not likely be pleased with a blog entry that said only “Read this book! Trust me!” So, although I always feel this way about Anne Tyler’s wonderful novels, and I do once again about “A Spool of Blue Thread” (Knopf, 2015), I will provide a little more information about this, her latest novel. First, though, I have to say how fortunate we are to have a writer of this caliber among us, and one who has given us 20 novels to read, savor, ponder, enjoy, and learn from. Tyler’s novels (most of the time) take place in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives too. The community of Baltimore, or at least the part of Baltimore that she writes about (mostly white, middle or upper middle class, with working class roots) is an integral background and part of her novels. The other common characteristic of her novels is the emphasis on family and family dynamics. In the case of “A Spool of Blue Thread,” the family is the Whitshanks, and we learn about four generations of the family, but especially the middle two generations. The story goes back and forth in the history of the family, each time revealing new aspects of the family history, including some surprising secrets. Abby and Red Whitshank have four adult children. Three of them live near their parents; one, who has always been the odd one, the one with secrets, lives in various places elsewhere, often out of touch with his parents and siblings. Yet he keeps coming back, and obviously loves his family, despite a huge chip on his shoulder about some of the family history, especially one big aspect of it: the way his younger brother came to be part of the family. As Abby and Red get older, and Abby starts to have health problems, the family draws together to help, and during this time, feelings are revealed, decisions are made and disputed, and everyone comes to understand the inevitability of time and change, but also the solid foundation that they as family provide each other. Besides her wonderful insights about, and rich descriptions of, families, the great thing about Tyler’s writing is her beautiful writing about everyday life in all its details, at the same time that she is portraying how we are all part of a longer history. Readers who already know and love Tyler’s novels do not need me to convince them to read “A Spool of Blue Thread.” To readers who have not yet read her fiction, I say “Read this book! Trust me!”

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Spinster," by Kate Bolick

The word “spinster” is a fraught one, meaning “unmarried woman” but with connotations of “woman who couldn’t get a man” or “pathetic woman left behind.” In Kate Bolick’s intriguing exploration of the term and the concept of spinsterhood, “Spinster” (Crown, 2015), the author presents a much more positive view of the word and the condition. This book is a memoir, one with literary, sociological, historical, and philosophical sections and aspects. The throughline is Bolick’s own life, as she has arrived at age 40 without getting married; although she feels ambivalent about this, she also knows that she has intentionally, although not always consciously, steered clear of the married state. She has had a series of relationships, some quite long-term, but eventually she has always left them or let them die a natural death. Why? In a word: freedom. It is not that she hasn’t been with wonderful men, whom she takes care to praise (while preserving their privacy by using initials rather than names when discussing them). Her devotion to her work (writing and editing, but especially writing) and her need to keep control over her own life, both everyday life and long term destiny, make her leery of marriage. She makes the useful point that because relationships end does not mean they were failures; each man she was with, and each relationship, enriched her life. Another, related throughline in this book is Bolick’s description of five women writers who have been inspirations to her: Edith Wharton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Maeve Brennan, and Neith Boyce. These women were all independent, although some of them were married at some points, usually briefly. She has learned something from each of them. Here she describes these writers and their lives, both professional and personal; she does research on them, including in some cases visiting places they had lived and interviewing relatives and others who knew them. Although Bolick does have times of wondering if she is missing out by not getting married, and not having children (which she also decides not to do), she is at peace with the decisions she has made. By the end of the book, she concludes that “spinster” represents a positive way of thinking and living for women; it does not necessarily mean not marrying, but it means being an equal human being, an independent one, and one who has goals and talents and work besides being wives and mothers. I have to say a word about the type of writing in this book: as mentioned above, it is a sort of hybrid of memoir and other genres, and I admire the way Bolick has blended these various parts. This book is a serious one, one that makes a contribution to the ongoing discussion of how women can and should live, and especially one that delineates a rich and complex option for women, one that is not as valued perhaps as the more common option of living a more traditional married life. In addition, Bolick makes the argument in an interesting, accessible way. And, for me and other readers I am sure, the exploration of the five women writers’ lives is an added pleasure – informative, inspiring, and (although not always happy) enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

"Gemma Bovery," a Film

I had read Posy Simmonds’ 1999 graphic novel, “Gemma Bovery,” and enjoyed it, so I thought it would be fun to see the movie version with the same title. It was fun, definitely, and a good although not a great film. Both the book and the film provide a tongue-in-cheek modern version of Flaubert’s great novel, “Madame Bovary” (which I read and studied in college, and re-read later, although not recently), in which the main character is named Emma Bovary. The film is in French, with some English, and English subtitles. The main character, Gemma Bovery, and her husband Charles move from England to the Normandy countryside, where Flaubert’s novel was also set. One of their neighbors is taken with the coincidence of Gemma’s name being so close to that of Emma Bovary, and at the same time develops a huge crush on her. He observes her constantly, in what would be a creepy fashion if it were not for his seeming innate basic decency. Gemma, like Emma, is unhappy in her marriage and bored, as well as being very beautiful and exuding sexuality, and inevitably she finds love or at least passion elsewhere, which eventually, also inevitably, leads to a sad ending. The film manages to balance lightness with seriousness, and is certainly entertaining, enhanced by the good acting on the part of all the main actors as well as by the beautiful setting. I am of course an easy mark for a book or film that is based on or connected to, and a variation on, a classic book, so I was predisposed to like this movie, and I did indeed like it. By the way, although having read “Madame Bovary” adds a little extra sense of connection to the film, it is definitely not a requirement for enjoying this film.
 
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